Buster Keaton Gets a Blu-Ray Glow On --- Part One
Kino's just rewrote the book on Buster Keaton's early solo career by releasing all his silent starring shorts on Blu-Ray, a real game changer for folks who've sat years squinting at crummy prints of nineteen gathered here for a first time. There'll be reevaluation afoot now that we can see them through something other than stained glass. Not all play pristine. Elements of several would be rugged to point of disposal but for necessity of including all nineteen (and isn't it lucky that none are missing). Collectors submitted too long before hobbled representation of these, so Blu-Ray availability comes much as Lazarus rising from a grave. Bits, pieces, and whole subjects gradually surfaced over years since Blackhawk Films and others offered handfuls and no more, making it now possible to close examine Keaton's two-reel bag. I've treated the set as delicacies over several past weeks, not wanting to burn through it too quick and blunt pleasure of seeing all so lovingly rendered. Why rush after forty years waiting?
One way Charlie Chaplin had it all over Buster Keaton was superiority of prints. The fact CC owned his negatives made it possible to preserve and present films throughout his lifetime and on his terms. Keaton's legacy had to make ways as best it could despite ownership of comedies residing with others or languishing in the public domain. Preservation efforts did not even begin until it was almost too late. Not a few titles were in deplorable shape. Chaplin, on the other hand, tendered sparkling quality to confirm he was top man on comedy's ladder. For this, if nothing else, the contest was never an even one. How could Keaton's compromised inventory win over audiences (if not a critical community) spoiled by closer-to-original elements a moneyed Chaplin could display? Sobering it is to think of last surviving Keatons dredged out of a storage shed at his former home, twenty-five years after he'd quit the place. I saw footage of that dark recess in a video home tour and marveled over nitrate film surviving there so long. I'd not have entrusted a push mower to such bleak space, but what I haven't seen and would like to is an inventory of titles they took out of there.
There was Harold Lloyd too in possession of glowing elements and dollars to showcase them, even if he generally chose not to. From what I've read, Harold's vaults were at times kind of a mess as well. It wouldn't have been fun going into such heat and dark to catalogue this stuff --- especially with commercial prospects doubtful as they were for silent pics. Keaton had a higher hill to climb than Chaplin/Lloyd who at least had oldies in basements or nearby storage, and yet Buster seems to have passed both in posterity's estimation. Kino's Blu-Ray release will renew argument over whose two-reelers were better. Is it safe saying Buster's equal or surpass all but maybe the Mutual Chaplins? There are numerous Lloyd shorts at least as funny as either Chaplin/Keatons ... might his place first as a group? It's any fan's opinion, of course. Some will tender other comics as having a preferred backlog, Langdon perhaps, even Arbuckle or Lloyd Hamilton. There's been aggressive moves to define The Best in terms beyond the The Big Three. I happily revere them all, and care not to argue for one at the expense of others. It's thrill aplenty to tick off another group of comedies and have all in one place rather than spread among discs as Keatons' previously were. With Laurel and Hardy aimed for can't-come-too-soon October, this promises to be a banner year for closing collector gaps.
Some of you will remember. Others might profitably skip my further meandering over lawn mowing and saved allowance for 8mm realization of two-reel dreams, the term itself a dated one for fact these no longer arrive on reels at all, roundness of discs being sole counterpart to what formats used to be. But wait, even that's changing, for haven't I spotted Sherlock, Jr. and Our Hospitality lately on Netflix HD, along with others streaming in standard-def? What I recall best of Keaton shorts on film was how muddy most looked. I'd watch The Balloonatic and more or less have to guess what was going on. We needed young eyes to make allowance for ink blots that passed for Buster and pursuing Cops, a subject for which I mailed ten one-by-one-got dollars to Griggs-Moviedrome in waning winter of 1970, counting myself among an elite for two silent reels roadshown exclusive in my boy-room Bijou (dubbed the Parkland for imaginary ads I'd draw).
It's all the more a marvel then to step back and regard how much better Keaton and other silent subjects look the further out we are from when they were made (shouldn't it be the other way around?). Remarkable too is stuff thought lost continuing to turn up, including elements to upgrade Buster's comedies from what Kino earlier released on DVD. Has the Internet and enhanced communication been key to so much unearthing? Again, it's new-found clarity that bring third dimensions of Keaton into (razor) focus. I looked at The High Sign and paid more attention to background clam chowder signs (a dime for a dish!) and 20's extra folk than Keaton himself ... most a blur before. Suddenly real-life pulsates around foreground Buster, levels to enrich many a repeat sit. These nineteen shorts are as many time machines ... being funny (when they are) is just gravy. Are laughs still there? The old Keaton conundrum applies as ever ... he's more breath-stopping than humorous to a not inconsiderable group (BK himself acknowledged the same issue when testing his comedies new). Some will always look on Buster more as magician than clown, or as a stunt performer daily putting life/limb in jeopardy. Moments find me still regarding him as more supernatural than real (as in, did a human being just do that?). Once I casually pointed out He nearly got drowned here during an Our Hospitality run and that cooled friends' response to what was left --- they focused on risk rather than laughing reward. Sometimes (if not always) it really is better to keep your mouth shut when sharing movie passion with others.
The Boat is among supernatural Busters. You'll remember it as one (of several) where Keaton engages a prop that could as easily deep-six or crush him. Later it would be bigger boats, then trains, but here for twenty-three minutes was hardship comedy I yearned to get past before Buster (and two little kids) swallowed half an ocean on verge of towing them under. Did Keaton measure comedy's value in terms of calamity he endured? If his was a goal of being the iron man of mirth, surely there was none to compete (Larry Semon took punishment to maybe greater, but less artful, extremes). Here's further query to experts ... Did comics before Buster harness such large and formidable props as he did with The Boat? (you could argue that Harold Lloyd used whole buildings for his) Keaton's short, like some of Lloyd's, amounted to comedy meeting physical peril with laughs earned at safety's risk. Did audiences then-respect comics more who were willing, like circus daredevils or stunt flyers, to put lives on the line for customer's entertainment?
So if Buster Keaton has passed Chaplin and Lloyd, that would, I suppose, make him the most popular and recognized of all performers who appeared in silent films. What long-awaited comeuppance for Talmadge sisters and like-minds who treated BK like pennies waiting on change. Too bad they can't come back just long enough to take receipt of that memo, critics too like ones who left Keaton's features in the shade. Are Keaton Blu-Rays outselling Chaplin's so-far released Modern Times and The Great Dictator? Snoops like me want to know, for no reason beyond confirming that Buster's once and for all scored the knockout punch to rivals. Heck of it is that Keaton was never competitive with others who clowned, so he never referred to them as rivals, which calls to mind an anecdote wherein a Chaplin daughter brought home a date who, in a stunner instance of lapsed tact, told Charlie that Buster Keaton was the better comedian, an assertion from which CC recoiled to a fortnight's despair.